Print or digital?

Over my years as editor of the Isis Bibliography, periodically people will ask me about whether or not it is time to go all digital. “Is the era of printed bibliographies over?” they wonder. After all, a database does a much better job of searching the cumulative data going back forty years. When responding to them, my answers have been more or less consistent for a decade: colleagues at meetings and elsewhere tell me that they still want print. However, this is all anecdotal. I’ve never had any other evidence to go on than these personal conversations.


Then this past spring, I conducted an internet survey to help me understand how scholars use the Isis Bibliography. That survey made it possible to get a more accurate assessment of the membership as a whole. Was it true that people still wanted it, or was this merely my own bias and that of the people who I ran into at meetings? It turns out that I wasn’t wrong. When the survey asked “would you opt out” of receiving the print version, the majority voted to keep it—and not by a small margin: 55 to 38 percent.

I talk more about the survey in an article in the upcoming HSS Newsletter, and people can download the results at this link. What interests me at the moment, however, is the nature of the difference between print and digital; in particular, what is it about print that some people like so much? And why are others happy to give it up?

Part of the answer comes from the comfortableness of physical books. Several respondents mentioned that it was simply relaxing to hold the book and mark up the pages, sometimes even tearing them out for their files. That physical presence of the book as a thing to be touched and manipulated with one’s hands makes it a fundamentally different kind of object than the electronic text on a monitor or even an iPad. (Perhaps this phenomenon is part of what has made the topic of touch and tactile sensation (see my earlier post) so interesting to scholars in the last few years.)

The point is that there is a split between those of us who want a hard copy to hold and those of us who don’t, a split that says a lot about what the bibliography is important for. These two groups of historians are reading, studying, and using bibliography in fundamentally different ways. Or more precisely—because many people like it in both forms—these two forms of the bibliography have completely different places in the scholar’s workshop.

The print format, according to many survey respondents, is excellent for scanning. The annual print bibliography gives an overview of one year in the discipline, and you can flip through to see what’s happening in areas you don’t regularly work in. In other words, people who want print, see the bibliography as something more than an old-fashioned search engine. Some of them may only pick up the annual print bibliography a few times before putting it on the shelf where it stays, unreferenced, for years because the database satisfies other requirements of their work. The electronic database, for all its ability to synthesize decades of data, simply doesn’t make it easy to see the big picture. For most scholars, that kind of overview is a critical part of their scholarly work, and the print bibliography turns out to accomplish this quite well.

So, how do I answer the question posed in the title, print or digital? Both.

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